The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

The myth of the solitary artistic genius and me

All the published authors I know are introverts.

One of my friends was talking about being part of an incoming class in the Vermont College MFA in children’s writing.  At the get-to-know-you session, people were asked to move here and there in the room depending on such things as where in the world they live…or whether they write YA or picture books…or whether they are introverts or extroverts.  With the last question, she said, the room almost tilted as people moved to the INTROVERT side.

When I put together my last VCMFA lecture on the lizard brain struggles of artists–and how to use insights from our own insecurities and fears in our writing–this is one thing I talked about.  A recent visiting author, who used to teach at Vermont College, said she started every residency loving everyone but by the middle of the 10-day residency, her “black Irish heart” would take over.

It’s hard to be an introvert, squeezed together with other introverts, and not feel the beating of one’s black Irish heart.

That’s why it’s so amazing to be part of my beloved annual writing retreat.  The generosity and warmth and laughter and smart conversation are something that sustains my work and something I yearn for all the rest of the year.  And this year was expecially amazingly wonderful because I went into the week feeling despair about my novel for young readers and where I am in the draft and came out in love with it again.

I had the chance to read the whole thing aloud to a fellow writer and illustrator and hear where she was confused…where she laughed…where she said “I love it; don’t change a word”…where she said, “You’re not yet having the effect you want.”

She was painting this retreat.  I got the idea of asking her if she’d be willing to listen because of another artist pairing of a writer and a painter.  It turned out to be exactly what I needed.  And she was only the latest person from this group to give me the gift of listening and reading.  The gift of warm but ferocious feedback.

Yes, art is often made in silence, humans walking that lonesome valley all by themselves.  But not always.  Sometimes we wrestle with the joys and terrors of collaboration and of what it means to have and maintain a team.

It takes generosity of spirit.

It takes people who are willing to mentor and people who are eager to be lifelong students.

When I saw this picture of Ethiopian artists working with the young children at one of the Ethiopia Reads schools in Addis Ababa–in probably the most crowded and dangerous part of that big city–I thought about how much the human community gains when we can dance together in the deep play of art.

Perhaps there are solitary geniuses in this world who can write a stunningly wonderful novel without ever venturing out of the playgrounds in their own brains.  I can’t.  I need a team.

Lucky me that I have one.  Last week in this place will warm me through many solitary days.

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